Apple’s unexciting 2021 Mac and iPhone software prove it should take a break from annual OS updates

Apple's latest software updates for fall, iOS 15 & macOS Monterey are now available worldwide. Apple's new software arrives with more of an audible whimper than a loud bang. The two updates aren’t as bad as they sound. I find it curious that Apple is still sticking to its annual release schedule.
Apple's annual cycle causes two problems. As is the case this year with iOS and macOS, the first is that iOS is a more mature operating system. There are fewer bugs to fix or new features to add. This means there are less opportunities to make major upgrades than there were when copy and paste was a big deal. There isn't much room for major additions unless Apple changes its mind about its operating system and the rules it follows -- such as when it opened iOS 14 to third-party email apps and browser apps.

The second is that Apple keeps almost all of its updates, large and small, in order to boost the iOS "big" release. This means that smaller, but still useful, quality-of-life improvements are often left waiting for months until the fall cycle arrives.

iOS 15 added grid view and the ability blur background in FaceTime. These core features have been part of Zoom's and Google Meets' toolkits to make larger virtual conversations more organized. They are not the type of feature that Apple would wait for an OS-level update to, but they were saved to iOS 15 regardless of the fact that they would have been more helpful during the peak of the pandemic.

Apple has started to drift away from its one and done updates, even though it has missed multiple deadlines. Major features like SharePlay and Universal Control for iOS or macOS have been delayed since the initial dot zero builds to allow for more development time. Point releases are becoming more important. They can be used to introduce new emoji or critical Face ID updates that better support masks, or Apple's highly-publicized App Tracking Transparency requirement.

Apple must do two things to address the problem of low-quality annual updates. Apple should keep releasing point releases throughout the year with new features, or unbundle app releases from its annual updates. Is there a new feature in FaceTime that will make pandemic chat easier? It will be available when it is ready. It should also start to spread out major software releases by waiting an additional year between iOS and macOS versions. This will ensure that there are big changes when it does release an "old" operating system.

Apple's plan to release software updates in a series of steps is not new, at least for macOS. Apple spent nearly a decade spacing OS X releases every 2 years before it introduced OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion annual updates in 2012.

Apple isn't new to the idea of releasing updates in a series.

Apple gets some benefits from the current cycle. Apple does get some benefit from its current cadence.

Although the increased public awareness is a good thing, I doubt Apple would lose out on much if they released annual updates. Apple's latest software is not the reason new iPhones sell; customers praise the M1 MacBook Airs for their battery life, processing speed, and lack of macOS Big Sur.

Although people install iOS and macOS upgrades, outside the tech world, it is not something they are excited to do. Apple updates are often installed because of a grumbling frustration with push notifications and a desire for a banishment from alert bubbles. Focus modes, however, allow power users to create more detailed do-not disturb settings.

It could be a good idea to schedule iOS and macOS updates when Apple has major features to showcase (like it did during OS X's days when it charged for new updates). This would help to fix the unenthusiastic update process. A decrease in iOS updates could make it more exciting to have new features or a visual redesign. Apple would also have more time to create new versions of its software. This could theoretically reduce bugs and glitches in final releases.

Instead of waiting for every update to become a huge, overwhelming grab bag one year later, smaller updates can be distributed over the year as they are ready. This makes them less likely to be overlooked by more important parts of the new operating systems. We know that gradual updates are more effective than those tied to one major release. This is because every third-party iOS app handles updates.

Apple's annual release system leaves it with the worst. It receives too few updates for minor features and not enough to make the hype worthwhile. Apple might consider ending the annual iOS release cycle if it isn't able to make macOS and iOS updates more substantive.